10 Degrees: Measuring baseball's graybeards by more than their age

10 Degrees: Measuring baseball's graybeards by more than their age

Considering the Cleveland Indians have spent the majority of summer coming up with different ways to talk about how old Scott Atchison is, it's a minor miracle they haven't stumbled upon this little nugget of delight: Scott Atchison has had gray hair longer than he hasn't.

"The first one, where you have just one pop up, was probably my senior year in high school," Atchison said. "But they really started coming my last, maybe second-to-last year in college. It's been a gradual process."

There's more salt than pepper now atop the head of the 38-year-old Atchison, one of the 2014 season's greatest success stories in a Swiss Army knife role out of the Indians bullpen. He can do mop-up. He can do high-leverage. He can vulture up wins, as evidenced by the 6-0 record that sits alongside his 2.53 ERA. Best of all, he can weather a joke from his teammates, which is a wonderful talent for someone among the most wizened players in baseball.

Guys today rarely get old in a uniform anymore. Just a decade ago, 140 players were at least 35 years old. Of them, 44 were Atchison's age or older, and a baker's dozen were 40-plus years old. Today, there are just seven who are 40 or older, and five of them could retire after the season. Two dozen others join Atchison in the 38-and-over club, and 88 are 35 or older.

This season's numbers fall in line more with past years than the anomalous mid-2000s, when pervasive steroid use was being phased out and amphetamines remained legal. Despite the advances in treatment, nutrition and the other elements that should help with longevity, the dip in the aged brings today's game more along the lines of 1994 and even pre-expansion 1984. Whether it is the amphetamine factor or teams' reassessment of the aging curve or something else or none of the above is neither provable nor of much import to Atchison.

Because he's used to being the old guy. He was 23 as a fifth-year senior at TCU, 24 in Class A, 25 in Double-A and 28 at his big league debut. He went to Japan for two years, came back and is on his third organization since. Less than a month ago, Atchison signed a one-year, $1 million extension, the first major league deal he ever received. It's almost certainly a record for the oldest first-time major league deal, and it's a testament to Atchison's character that he could survive the Civil War, typhoid fever, the Depression and all of those minor league deals, with no guarantees, to make it.

So here's to you …

1. Scott Atchison, the only middle reliever in baseball with a parody Twitter account (@NottAtchison), the man who uses ink and quill on his crossword puzzles, the hero whose rookie card came in a pack of smokes.

Though Atchison wears the digs with a smile, he notes that he is not the oldest person on the Indians, nor was he during the 2013 season with the New York Mets.

"Last year," Atchison said, "I was playing with …

LaTroy Hawkins has 22 saves this season. (Getty Images)
LaTroy Hawkins has 22 saves this season. (Getty Images)

2. LaTroy Hawkins

with the Mets, and I'd just wear him out. He's like, 'Man, you're killing me.' And I said, 'Hawk, man, you're the only guy in here who's older than me.' "

Hawkins, 41, is the oldest pitcher in baseball, now in his 20th season, and effective as ever closing games for the Colorado Rockies. His 22 saves are the seventh most for a pitcher at least 41; the only ones with more were Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Dennis Eckersley, and future Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman.

Only 26 other relievers have pitched past their 41st birthday since the '94 strike, and should Hawkins return next season – the Rockies hold a plenty-reasonable $2.25 million option – he'll be just the 14th to go at 41 and 42. Joining him will be …

3. Bartolo Colon, six months younger, six inches shorter, 100 pounds heavier and still one of baseball's most fascinating cases. He is the un-athlete, the one-pitch right-hander, the shouldn't-be who became a did-anyway on account of his command.

Colon's walk rate this season for the New York Mets is the lowest in the National League, and because of that, the Mets will find a buyer should they resolve to dump him in a trade this offseason. Their rotation features a returning Matt Harvey, Rookie of the Year favorite Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee already, with Noah Syndergaard's arrival imminent.

While he's no Tim Hudson, the best among the 38-and-over stAARPers, Colon is plenty serviceable and signed for one year at $11 million, which, compared to some of the deals about to land this winter, will look downright appealing. He's not the sort to head a rotation anymore. He's a good, ahem, innings-eater. Anyway, expectations for those past 40 aren't exactly mountainous, as …

4. Derek Jeter has proven slumping his way toward the final 15 games of his career. His age-40 season won't go down as the failure of Willie Mays', even though Mays' OPS was actually higher than Jeter's this season.

Since the All-Star break, only Matt Dominguez and Andrelton Simmons have hit worse than Jeter among the 161 qualified players. His .215/.258/.262 post-All-Star break line is sad and has dragged down his season on-base and slugging percentages below .300.

For Jeter to wear a smile as he is honored in the midst of a year that surely eats at him is admirable. As his season turtled, his position in the everyday lineup turned more into an honorific than something earned, he could have gotten angry, bitter. He didn't. Jeter recognized something about his past makes most ignore his present, and he wouldn't deny people that, even if it goes against what he believes in earning what's given.

Getting old stinks because it turns true greats like Jeter and …

Ichiro Suzuki is hitting .283 this season. (Getty Images)
Ichiro Suzuki is hitting .283 this season. (Getty Images)

5. Ichiro Suzuki

into shells of their Hall of Fame selves. And though there is beauty in that – in knowing that this is a game for men in prime physical condition and that the body's built-in mechanism regulates that – there is nobody like prime Ichiro in baseball today, and the game is worse for that.

Even if Ichiro keeps playing after this season – the market for a 41-year-old hitting .283/.324/.330 won't go far beyond fourth or fifth outfielder, and at bare-bones prices – he'll fall short of 3,000 hits in the major leagues. That he's just 168 short is incredible and gives him 4,110, including his nine years in Japan.

Yes, Ichiro has played professional baseball now for 23 years. Only two other outfielders have lasted that long: Rickey Henderson (25 years) and Ty Cobb (24 years). Though he won one championship with the Orix BlueWave, never did Ichiro get to play in the World Series, a sad footnote …

6. Joe Nathan shares as he prepares to turn 40 this offseason. Were it not for Nathan's foibles, perhaps the Detroit Tigers would have a greater hold on the AL Central than their current 1½-game lead. Nevertheless, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is sticking with Nathan at closer, and games will be left up to him as he tries to send fellow World Series-less graybeard Torii Hunter to late October.

Hunter and Ichiro are among the best active veterans never to play in a Fall Classic, along with Joe Mauer and David Wright on the batting side and pitchers Nathan, Hudson, Colon and Felix Hernandez. Maybe it's not a coincidence that many of the oldest players in baseball haven't been to the World Series. It is the game's apex, the experience that allows plenty to retire happy. If …

7. Koji Uehara wanted to step away after this season, he could do so with a ring on his finger. Granted, a month ago, the idea would have been patently absurd. On Aug. 15, Uehara sported a 1.27 ERA, a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 92.8 percent save rate.

Then he gave up a run against Houston. And lost a game against Anaheim. And imploded against Seattle. And blew another in Toronto. And one more in New York. And while it was just 5 2/3 miserable innings, it put the Boston Red Sox in an interesting position. Giving a $15 million-or-so qualifying offer to a relief pitcher who will be 40 on opening day is risky. Doing so with a reliever who imploded in August and September is madness.

Uehara is making Boston’s decision easy, much like …

David Ortiz has hit 32 home runs this season. (Getty Images)
David Ortiz has hit 32 home runs this season. (Getty Images)

8. David Ortiz

did by defying typical aging patterns. Rampant speculation will forever surround Ortiz, who can thank his positive PED test more than a decade ago for that. His only answer is to test clean and keep raking.

His 32 home runs this season are the 12th most for a player 38 or older – and those ahead of him include Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas. Ortiz will be back next season at $16 million, and then the Red Sox hold options on him for 2016 and 2017.

Players are not supposed to age like Ortiz, especially big sluggers. There is usually a drop-off point in the early to mid-30s from which they tumble drastically, like in a movie, and land in a heap at the bottom of retirement cavern. It’s the place …

9. Jason Giambi found himself following his age-38 season, when he barely mustered a .200 batting average in his first year of part-time duty. At that point, Giambi could have taken his 409 home runs home and settled down into a regular existence.

Baseball would not let him go. Or maybe it was the opposite. Didn't really matter. The Giambino morphed into Grandpa G, playing mentor with the Rockies for three years and spending the past two with the Indians. He's a player-coach without the title, a 25th man who's around because he has seen things, heard things, done things that nobody in the clubhouse ever will.

Now 43 years old, Giambi may be entering the final stretch of his career. The Indians could bring him back. They could see his roster spot better suited for someone else. Rare is the case that the player decides when his time is up. The game often does it for him, and seeing as the game told …

10. Scott Atchison plenty of times that he wasn't good enough, his presence – his role as the anonymous, could-be-anyone guy in the bullpen of a team that's a long shot to make the postseason – is even more impressive than that of his blue-blood peers in wrinkle.

His teammates recognize as much. Otherwise, they'd just leave him alone and needle Giambi, who's got more than five years on Atchison. "I think they're all scared of him," Atchison said. "He brings a little bigger credentials to the party."

So it's all-in on Atchison, with Corey Kluber and Lonnie Chisenhall and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer peppering Twitter with #AtchFacts. "I tell them they're just jealous and hope they're still playing when they're 38," Atchison said, and there's some truth in that. To play at 38 means one of two things: You've built enough capital in your formative years that you can dictate your retirement, or you're thriving among men a decade, sometimes two younger.

That's Atchison: the overachiever, the grinder, the guy who guaranteed himself $1 million for his age-39 season by exceeding expectations at 38. His story is the sort worth celebrating without hyperbole. The greatest #AtchFact of all may be the simplest: Scott Atchison is still here.

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